The Brewing and Distilling Center

By Rob Shomaker, Certified Cicerone®

Brandon Snodgrass stands tall beside the 7-barrel brewhouse at Old Schoolhouse Brewery in Winthrop, Washington. Brandon is one of two assistant brewers who make up a team of three who will ensure that 110 barrels of beer are produced this month. “It doesn’t feel like a job,” he shares, “the days fly by and I enjoy every minute of it. To top it off, I get a paycheck.” For Brandon, an avid homebrewer, this reality seemed like a distant dream until he found The Brewing and Distilling Center (BDC) in Knoxville, Tennessee.

“I was managing an outdoor retail shop,” Brandon shares. He had looked at brewing programs at large universities on both coasts, but the time and resources required, he just couldn’t commit. While living in Chattanooga, Brandon went to Google to continue his search. He discovered the BDC and thought, “Knoxville, really?” After visiting Knoxville and auditing a class, he and his wife decided he should join the program. He graduated in April 2018 and had a job within 30 days. “Professionally, I’ve never been happier.”

Dr. Todd White doesn’t seem like a professor. Those who know him call him “Dr. Todd,” “Doc,” or “Dean Suds.” Dr. Todd is well known in the East Tennessee craft beer community and can often be found with a beer in hand, telling a joke among friends, or helping a colleague or student with a challenge. With a master’s degree in architecture and a doctorate in veterinary medicine, his interest in quality beer kept drawing him in. Dr. Todd stands at a medium height, a blonde goatee and often, a smile. Even before the BDC, Dr. Todd has volunteered as part of numerous craft beer events, even hosting tastings at the long gone Market in Maryville before it was even in vogue to do such things. Having a fascination for craft beer and the community that goes along with it, Dr. Todd has been immersed in this community for quite some time.

“Craft beer is a small business. It is often the small business that acts as an incubator for other small businesses. Breweries will choose locations that are under used or neglected due to cost. It’s not long that other small businesses emerge,” Dr. Todd shares as the sunlight peaks through his small classroom at 130 Bearden Place. It’s an unassuming building. A location that is a simple walk from four different breweries that also act as extensions to his classroom.

The BDC began in April 2017 (after starting another brewing program at a local Knoxville college in 2013) as Dr. Todd saw a need for education. “The jobs are out there,” he shares. “People just need the training these breweries are looking for.” Dr. Todd aims to fill that void as, “it spills over into the economy of Knoxville,” he shares.

Craft beer has certainly had a role in Knoxville’s success and its changing landscape. With more than 17 breweries in Knox County, several in the surrounding counties, and multiple others in planning, it’s easy to see how several areas of Knoxville have evolved as breweries have opened their doors. Dr. Todd has, at last count, 16 graduates in the Knoxville area alone. Further, “a school should be about reaching goals and finding jobs that enhance one’s quality of life,” he adds. “You should be in a career you are passionate about.”

The BDC is authorized by the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and offers multiple programs. Its core offering is a Professional Brewing and Distilling Technology Certificate that is achieved over the course of 13 weeks, 144 total hours, roughly 14 hours per week for a total of 104 hours in the classroom, 26 hours of practical training, and 14 hours of extra industry-related experience. All of the instructors are industry professionals who are not only experts in the material, but exercise the material on a daily basis.

From Chris Meadows, head brewer at Elkmont Exchange and Brewery and Aaron McClain, owner/head brewer at Crafty Bastard Brewery, to Stanton Webster and Ron Grazioso, owners/ distillers at Post Modern Spirits, it’s evident that Dr. Todd has reached out into the community and engaged the experts to teach from their strengths. The BDC offers these same courses within the main program in a short course format to those who are already in the industry and may not have had that particular training before. The BDC also offers training in skills not directly related to brewing and distilling, but often needed onsite, such as fork lift training. The BDC also extends its offerings to home brewing enthusiasts who wish to learn the basics or move to the next level. Regardless of your skill level or interest, the BDC has a way to get you plugged in.

Another element of the program is that the BDC also requires its students to have hands-on time at local breweries. “The BDC is trying to prepare students for as many scenarios as they can,” Brandon shares. “The volunteer requirement helped me connect with others and see different sized brew houses as well as different processes. This was exactly what I was looking for.”

Luanne Rounds, an assistant brewer at Clinch River Brewing, said, “While we were required to have about 30 hours of brewery experience, I went for 80 hours. While I knew a lot of these breweries and people, I wanted to know about every aspect, and the program allowed me to do that.” Luanne was part of the first cohort of the BDC. “We were learning together in some ways,” she laughs. “It was a great experience. As a homebrewer I had a thirst for more knowledge and Dr. Todd is a great teacher.”

While Luanne wasn’t sure she wanted to be a professional brewer when she entered the program, she knew she wanted to know more. “Homebrewing is a puzzle. When I began the pro- gram, we started filling in the blanks behind so many questions I had. We were studying some of these things down to a cellular level and all of a sudden these things started to make sense.” At the end of the program she was approached by Clinch River Brewing, “I wanted to do it, but not full time as I didn’t want to give up my other career. It worked out and now I have two careers that I love.”

Students are also required to volunteer in the local community. “A community is only as strong as its volunteer base,” Dr. Todd shares. Further, he adds, “it’s also the right thing to do and ultimately it will help your business if you are involved in the local community. You’ll interface with the public in a different way and you’ll connect with other brewing colleagues.”

As we continue to reach record numbers of breweries across the United States, with it comes a demand for experience and education. In Knoxville and beyond, there are many BDC graduates brewing and distilling. They are having a profound impact as they have the education and experience they need to succeed.

“It’s easy to see all the available jobs online,” Dr. Todd shares. “Finding people with experience is tough. Now, breweries and distilleries are reaching out to us to connect with students. We’ve placed over 90 percent of our students, and our grads have little to no issues getting jobs. To help a student reach their goal and get into a career they are passionate about, that changes lives. That’s what the BDC is about.”